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Under these circumstances Mr. Pitt, afterwards Earl of Chatham, was applied to; but as the conditions of that able but haughty minister were such as royalty could not comply with, and the will of royalty itself not more imperious than his own, the negociations were abandoned.
By the mediation of the Duke of Cumberland, a section of the Whigs entered office under the auspices of the Marquis of Rockingham. This nobleman was a man of no mean talents and accomplishments ; at all events he possessed an advantage which is generally supposed to argue the existence of them, or which, if it can be obtained without them, will go far to make up for their absence; we mean popularity. Those virtues, however, for which he was more especially popular, he did possess—and, indeed, the only way to obtain a character for them is to possess them ;-the virtues of consistency and integrity. For the rest, his talents were rather useful than splendid; he was characterized chiefly by that prudence, that sobriety of mind, that practical sense, which generally accompany the virtues above mentioned. Bnt though he possessed many good qualities, he had no such superfluity of merit as could atone for the defects of the cabinet he formed. Its great, its essential vice was a want of unity; it was composed of men of all shades of opinion, of all political sects; while some of them, (a still more dangerous set,) belonged to no sect at all; men who are too prudent to commit themselves to any fixed opinions, and who, having no certain course, can manage to trim their sails to any wind.
Born, therefore, with the elements of dissolution within, a short-lived existence was predicted for it. Our immediate object, however, is merely to trace Mr. Burke's connexion with it ; a connexion which affected his whole future life. In July 1765, at the instance of Mr. Fitzherbert and some other friends, he was appointed private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham. He had scarcely been appointed, when a strange report, communicated to the Marquis of Rockingham by the Duke of Newcastle, for purposes which none can doubt, threatened his immediate dismissal. This report was nothing less than that Burke was a papist and Jacobin in disguise. The frankness and evident honesty with which these charges were repelled, and the honour with which he offered to resign his situation rather than remain, if the slightest feeling of doubt or hesitation lingered in the mind of the Marquis, removed every suspicion, if any had ever existed, nay, procured him a confidence, which, but for this, he might not so soon have enjoyed; “a confidence which,” as Lord Charlemont afterwards said, “ Lord Rockingham never had occasion to repent.” Through the interest of Lord Verney, he entered parliament as member for Wendover.
The Rockingham administration, it is well known, entered into power under very critical circumstances. The stamp act, passed in the previous session, was spreading discontent and alarm through our American colonies, and inspiring the manufacturers at home, who began to tremble for their trade to the American ports, with discontent almost equally strong.
The session opened Jan. 14, 1766, and on a very early day Mr. Burke delivered his first speech. It was on that fruitful theme which was afterwards to excite so much of his eloquence, America. Little of this first effort now remains. That it must have possessed no ordinary excellence, however, is evident from the fact that it drew from Mr. Pitt, who followed him, the most marked commendations. After this he spoke very frequently, and each time with increasing effect.
The parliamentary reputation of Burke was not of slow growth, as is usually the case; it had no slow dawning; he burst at once into a blaze of celebrity. Johnson himself has left it on record,“ that probably no man at his first appearance ever obtained so much reputation before."
The most important measure on which the Rockingham party resolved was that which respected America, and is well known to every reader of this portion of our history. It
repealed the stamp act on the ground of expediency, but asserted the legislative power of Great Britain to enforce it, if she thought proper. This was a middle course between the two extreme parties, one of whom denied the right of England to tax the colonies at all, while the other not only maintained that right, but could not rest satisfied to see such a weapon rusting in its scabbard. Whether the measure was altogether well judged or not, it bears most conclusive internal evidence of having been in a considerable measure the work of Mr. Burke. It bears the very stamp of his policy. His principle was always to apply a practical remedy to a practical grievance, and never to discuss abstract principles, or, at all events, not before the most imperious necessity compelled such a course. The measure answered its purpose; and had the principles it recognised been adhered to, North America might long have remained the colonies of Britain.-Several other measures were passed this session, the most popular of which was the resolution against general warrants. Under the provisions of this act, Mr. Wilkes returned from banishment. With the consummate impudence which marked his whole career, he proposed the most extravagant terms to the Ministry. By the skilful negociations of Mr. Burke, however, he was again induced to retire from the kingdom, with a small gratuity.
Parliament was prorogued in June, and in July the ministry were dismissed. No pension, or sinecure, or reversion awaited any of them. Mr. Burke soon after drew up that masterly little sketch, entitled, “ A Short Account of a late Short Administration;" in which, leaving his readers to form their own judgment of that administration, he simply stated, in a few paragraphs, what it had done during the year it had been in office.
No sooner was the Rockingham administration dismissed, than Mr. Pitt was applied to to form a new one. He attempted to combine it out of the elements of all political parties, and he produced in consequence a monster of inconsistencies, every one of whose members seemed to counterwork the other. This was the memorable “piece of joinery,” some years afterwards so happily described by Mr. Burke.
Ten days after the dismissal of the Rockingham administration, Burke set out for Ireland, accompanied by his wife and her mother. He has himself stated his motives for this journey, and they are highly honourable to him. It was “ to put himself out of the negociations which were then carrying on very eagerly and through many channels with the Earl of Chatham, he went to Ireland very soon after the change of ministry, and did not return until the meeting of parliament. He was at that time free from any thing that looked like an engagement.” There is every reason to believe that he might have had a place under the new administration, namely, that of a lord of trade, and that he was advised by the Marquis of Rockingham to accept it.
The session of 1766 opened with unequivocal symptoms of weakness and approaching dissolution in the ministry. A resolution that the land-tax should be four shillings in the pound, was carried against the chancellor of the Exchequer. But this was without the camp; more formidable terrors were within. Mutual suspicion and distrust had spread weakness through every part of the administration.-Parliament was prorogued in July; before that event Burke is said to have been offered a seat at the Treasury Board, but the conditions attached to the offer were such as he could not accept.
No sooner had the next session opened, than he distinguished himself by a most eloquent speech against the ministry, which however, soon after the commencement of the session, received an accession of strength from the Bedford party, terminating in what is usually called the Grafton administration. The chief topics which engaged Burke's attention were the nullum tempus act, the public distresses consequent on the dearness of provisions, and the affairs of the East India company. The parliament was dissolved in March, when Mr. Burke was again chosen for Wendover.
It was at this time that he purchased an estate in Buckinghamshire, called Gregories, which cost not less than £20,000. The manner in which the money was raised for this object has often led to surmises and reports not very favourable to Mr. Burke's character, but all of which appear to be without foundation. The simple fact is, that the larger portion of the money was left him by his father and elder brother, then dead; and the rest generously lent him by his patron the Marquis of Rockingham, if it ought not rather to be considered little more than a just return for the faithful and indefatigable services of his secretary
The session of 1768 opened in perplexities. America was agitated from one extremity to the other, and the tone of remonstrance was fast strengthening into that of defiance. These, together with other topics, (inore especially the flagrant injustice of summoning Americans to England for trial,) furnished Mr. Burke with matter of frequent and powerful invective. Unable any longer to carry on the government, Lord Chatham resigned. At this critical moment, as if to increase the intricacy of this confused plot, appeared on the stage the notorious Wilkes, and against the influence of both court and legislature gained the election of Middlesex. His election and consequent prosecution, as is well known, were followed by disgraceful riots. In this difficult juncture Burke behaved in a manner worthy of himself, and while he heartily detested the demagogue, exerted himself to the utmost to defeat the unconstitutional methods adopted to crush him.
At this period Mr. Grenville either wrote, or caused to be written, a pamphlet entitled “The Present State of the Nation.” It was an elaborate defence of the Marquis of Bute's measures and his own. To this pamphlet Mr. Burke replied, in his celebrated work, entitled, “Observations on a late Pamphlet, entitled, The Present State of the Nation.” It is an admirable piece, distinguished not more by comprehensiveness in its general reasonings than by minute accuracy of detail in the statements, financial and commercial, on which his reasonings were founded. As this microscopic accuracy was the point in which Mr. Grenville most prided himself, Mr. Burke's reply was the more galling. It showed, moreover, that there was scarcely any subject which could come amiss to one who added to natural endowments so rare a knowledge almost universal.
The session of 1770 was a most important one. His most strenuous efforts were those made in favour of the bounty on the exportation of foreign corn, in support of the bill for regulating controverted elections, and in a speech proposing a censure on ministers for their American policy. It was in this session that Mr. Fox made his first speech-a speech to which Burke replied, and with some severity.
About this period, Mr. Burke drew up a petition from the Freeholders of Middlesex, praying for a new parliament. With the same object he published his powerful work entitled, “ Thoughts on the Present Discontents.”
The session of 1771 found him as indefatigable as ever in the ranks of opposition. He chiefly signalized himself by the active part he took in the support of a measure of Serjeant Glynn, for an inquiry into the administration of justice in Westminster Hall; of a bill to ascertain the rights of electors in choosing their own representatives, and those of juries in cases of prosecution for libel, a bill which was, in fact, his own; and in opposing government in the unhappy affair of Falkland's Island. But the most important service he rendered during this session, however comparatively insignificant it might have appeared then, was his defence of the publication of the proceedings in parliament. This led, not to the recognition, indeed, but to what is practically as good, an undisturbed enjoyment of the most valuable privileges, (next to the privileges of our great charters,) which this country possesses. Though never as yet formally recognised, prescription, joined with public opinion, has rendered the privilege as sacred as law could make it. No government would be so mad as to invade it; and if any were so mad, it would be impossible that the attempt should be successful.
In 1771 Burke was appointed agent to the State of New York, a situation worth about £1000 a year. This situation afforded his observant and capacious mind the fullest oppor
tunities of obtaining a thorough knowledge of American affairs. In the short session which ended 1772, nothing of much consequence was done. He distinguished himself chiefly in opposing the petition of certain clergymen, who prayed to be relieved from the necessity of subscription to the Articles; in advocating with consummatè ability the repeal of the Test Act, a motion for which passed by a great majority in the lower house but was rejected in the lords; in opposing the “ Royal Marriage Act;" in defending a bill for securing private property against dormant claims of the church ; and another for the relief of Protestant dissenters. In this summer and that of 1773 he visited France, where he saw that splendid vision of royal beauty and grandeur, which he afterwards described with such rare felicity in his “ Reflections on the French Revolution.” Even at this early period he observed with alarm and sorrow, that combination of genius and atheism, which was slowly preparing the Revolution. He even made allusion to this state of things in the following parliament
The “ East India Company” formed the great subject of dissension throughout nearly the whole of the next session ; a subject on which Burke, even at this period, displayed extensive knowledge. Just about this time, it was proposed by Mr. Flood in the Irish parliament, to impose a tax on absentees,-a measure which was approved by government. Sir Charles Bingham wrote to Mr. Burke for his opinion; this he gave against it, in the strongest manner, in a letter which will be found in these volumes. The measure was abandoned, and, as it is thought, mainly through Mr. Burke's arguments.
England was now on the eve of the American war. Boston was in a state of actual insurrection, and it was become but too obvious to the most careless observer, that the dispute must be submitted to the arbitration of the sword.
The ministry still obstinately devoted to their frantic policy, adopted the most rash measures against the state of Massachusetts. Mr. Burke, thongh almost alone, steadily opposed them. He also took a leading part in the Grenville Election bill, the Quebec bill, and several others that affected America. But his most splendid effort was his speech in favour of Mr. Fuller's motion for repealing the abhorred tea-duty. It is equal in beauty to any speech Mr. Burke ever composed; and in nerve and force, -in all the essentials of powerful eloquence,-surpasses most of them.—This is the celebrated speech on “ American Taxation." It was the first speech he could be prevailed on to publish.
During the summer, Dr. Johnson, and some other friends, spent some time at Gregories, when after viewing the grounds, the moralist uttered the expression, “ Non equidem invideo; miror magis ;” and upon leaving him, struggling apparently between his love for his friend and his abhorrence of his friend's politics, said,—“ Farewell, my dear sir, and remember that I wish you all the success which ought to be wished you, which can possibly be wished you indeed—by an honest man."
In the autumn parliament was dissolved ; and a difference with Lord Verney excluding him from Wendover, he was elected for Malton. Malton, however, was not yet to have the honour of being so magnificently represented, for just as the election had terminated, a deputation from Bristol arrived with the flattering invitation to become a candidate for that city. Burke immediately decided ; threw himself into a post-chaise, and by travelling night and day with incredible speed, in about four and forty hours reached Bristol. Without resting a moment, he repaired to the Guildhall, and addressed a powerful speech to the electors. He had been nominated at a late period, and the canvass of his opponents was already far advanced; yet, nothing daunted, he ventured on the contest, which continued to the very last moment. It terminated in his favour. In returning thanks for his election, he took an opportunity of entering largely into the mutual duties of representatives and their constituents.--Other observations on this speech will be postponed.
The “ Boston Port” measures produced, as had been predicted, the most disastrous results. They exasperated the spirit of all America ; they necessitated and they justified defence; and they led, (worst of all,) to the Congress, thus giving unity and concentration to the hitherto vague and wavering spirit of hostility. The ill-omened nature of the impending war was now beginning to be seen at home, and petitions flowed into the houses without number, imploring a change of policy.
A powerful testimony to Burke's far-sighted wisdom was at this time given by the ministry, though too late. Lord Chatham was now willing to adopt the DECLARATORY ACT. Abundant evidence was also given at the bar of the house, that America would have been tranquil, had the policy of the Rockingham administration been adhered to.
In the session of 1775, Mr. Burke introduced his famous propositions on the subject of “ American Conciliation.” This is the most elaborate of his speeches on the subject of America, and one of the most powerful he ever delivered. In this speech he went somewhat further than he had as yet done, though he still cautiously avoided the question of right, and contented himself with denying altogether the possible expediency of taxing America. The time had arrived, in his opinion, when something more was necessary for the tranquillization of the colony, than the abandonment of an odious tax. The Americans would formerly have been satisfied with that; they would now be satisfied with it no longer. They demanded a pledge against the possible recurrence of the system. His defence of this advance on his old position was, that a great change of circumstances demanded a change of policy.—The whole speech is full of the most important principles, adorned and enforced with all the prodigal illustrations of his fancy. Mr. Fox said of it, “Let gentlemen read this speech by day, and meditate upon it by night; let them peruse it again and again, study it, imprint it on their minds, impress it on their hearts—they would there learn that representation was the sovereign remedy for every evil."
The eloquent warnings of Burke, however, were poured forth in vain. The infatuated ministry had no ear for Cassandra's melancholy prophecies. Hostilities, in fact, had already commenced at Lexington, at Concord, and at Bunkers Hill; and, more than all, General Washington had been appointed to the command of the colonial forces.
At home the violence of party-spirit seemed the echo of the turbulent state of affairs on the other side of the Atlantic; and Mr. Burke, as the principal organ of the opposition, was, of course, assailed with a prodigious quantity of abuse. In the summer of 1775 he again visited France.
In the following session, the haughty tone of the address again called him to offer a powerful but ineffectual protest against an obstinate appeal to force in the disputes with America. Nor did he stop here ; five weeks afterwards he brought forward a second scheme of conciliation with America, founded on the statute of Edward I. de tallagio non concedendo. This speech is said to have been a very wonderful effort of oratory, but as scarcely a vestige of it remains, it is impossible to judge of its merits. The fate of this motion lingered through a long debate, which pressed into it all the abilities of the house. It was then negatived. The division, however, afforded a more favourable indication of the state of public feeling with respect to America, than had been given for a long time. It was 105 against 210; making the minority precisely one half.
A few days after this Burke poured forth his indignant eloquence against what was called the “ Starvation Plan.” But it was of no avail; the ministry still madly persevered. Petitions and remonstrances from merchants, both at home and abroad, were treated with a sort of ostentation of insolent neglect, which at length provoked Mr. Burke to move a resolution in the shape of a taunt, to the effect that“ the house knowing all things relative to America, needed no further information.”
Humour was not one of Burke's main characteristics. This session, however, he signalized himself by a piece of wit worth relating. Mr. David Hartley, who was as strenuously opposed to the American war as Burke himself, proposed a measure of conciliation. He was acknowledged to be an estimable and enlightened man; but the defects of his elo